What causes a financial crisis?
Can financial crises be anticipated or even avoided?
What can be done to lessen their impact?
Should governments and international institutions intervene?
Or should financial crises be left to run their course?
In the aftermath of the recent Asian financial crisis, many blamed international institutions, corruption, governments, and flawed macro and microeconomic policies not only for causing the crisis but also unnecessarily lengthening and deepening it.
At the turn of this century, most economists in the developed world believed that major economic disasters were a thing of the past, or at least relegated to volatile emerging markets. Financial systems in rich countries, the thinking went, were too sophisticated to simply collapse. Markets were capable of regulating themselves. Policymakers had tamed the business cycle. Recessions would remain short, shallow, and rare. Seven years later, house prices across the United States fell sharply, undercutting the value of complicated financial instruments that used real estate as collateral—and setting off a chain of consequences that brought on the most catastrophic global economic collapse since the Great Depression.
Over the course of 2008, banks, mortgage lenders, and insurers failed. Lending dried up. The contagion spread farther and faster than almost anyone expected. By 2009, economies making up three-quarters of global GDP were shrinking. A decade on, most of these economies have recovered, but the process has been slow and painful, and much of the damage has proved lasting. “Why did nobody notice it?” Queen Elizabeth II asked of the crisis in November 2008, posing a question that economists were just starting to grapple with. Ten years later, the world has learned a lot, but that remains a good question. The crash was a reminder of how much more damage financial crises do than ordinary recessions and how much longer it takes to recover from them. But the world has also learned that how quickly and decisively governments react can make a crucial difference.
After 2008, as they scrambled to stop the collapse and limit the damage, politicians and policymakers slowly relearned this and other lessons of past crises that they never should have forgotten. That historical myopia meant they hesitated to accept the scale of the problem and use the tools they had to fight it. That remains the central warning of 2008: countries should never grow complacent about the risk of financial disaster. So how the financial crisis of 2007-08 unfolded ? Before the Beginning . Like all previous cycles of booms and busts, the seeds of the subprime meltdown were sown during unusual times. In 2001, the U.S. economy experienced a mild, short-lived recession. Although the economy nicely withstood terrorist attacks, the bust of the dot-com bubble and accounting scandals, the fear of recession really preoccupied everybody’s minds. To keep recession away, the Federal Reserve lowered the Federal funds rate 11 times – from 6.5% in May 2000 to 1.75% in December 2001 – creating a flood of liquidity in the economy.
Cheap money, once out of the bottle, always looks to be taken for a ride. It found easy prey in restless bankers—and even more restless borrowers who had no income, no job and no assets. These subprime borrowers wanted to realize their life’s dream of acquiring a home. For them, holding the hands of a willing banker was a new ray of hope. More home loans, more home buyers, more appreciation in home prices. It wasn’t long before things started to move just as the cheap money wanted them to.
This environment of easy credit and the upward spiral of home prices made investments in higher yielding subprime mortgages look like a new rush for gold. The Fed continued slashing interest rates, emboldened, perhaps, by continued low inflation despite lower interest rates. In June 2003, the Fed lowered interest rates to 1%, the lowest rate in 45 years.
The whole financial market started resembling a candy shop where everything was selling at a huge discount and without any down payment. “Lick your candy now and pay for it later” – the entire subprime mortgage market seemed to encourage those with a sweet tooth for have-it-now investments. Unfortunately, no one was there to warn about the tummy aches that would follow.
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But the bankers thought that it just wasn’t enough to lend the candies lying on their shelves. They decided to repackage candy loans into collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and pass on the debt to another candy shop. Hurrah! Soon a big secondary market for originating and distributing subprime loans developed. To make things merrier, in October 2004, the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) relaxed the net capital requirement for five investment banks – Goldman Sachs , Merrill Lynch , Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and Morgan Stanley – which freed them to leverage up to 30-times or even 40-times their initial investment.
Everybody was on a sugar high, feeling as if the cavities were never going to come. But, every good item has a bad side and several of these factors started to emerge alongside one another. The trouble started when the interest rates started rising, and home ownership reached a saturation point. From June 30, 2004, onward, the Fed started raising rates so much that by June 2006, the Federal funds rate had reached 5.25% ,which remained unchanged until August 2007.
There were early signs of distress: by 2004, U.S. homeownership had peaked at 70%; no one was interested in buying or eating more candy. Then, during the last quarter of 2005, home prices started to fall, which led to a 40% decline in the U.S. Home Construction Index during 2006. Not only were new homes being affected, but many subprime borrowers now could not withstand the higher interest rates and they started defaulting on their loans. This caused 2007 to start with bad news from multiple sources.
Every month, one subprime lender or another was filing for bankruptcy. During February and March 2007, more than 25 subprime lenders filed for bankruptcy, which was enough to start the tide. In April, well-known New Century Financial also filed for bankruptcy. Problems in the subprime market began hitting the news, raising more people’s curiosity. Horror stories started to leak out. According to 2007 news reports, financial firms and hedge funds owned more than $1 trillion in securities backed by these now-failing subprime mortgages – enough to start a global financial tsunami if more subprime borrowers started defaulting.
By June, Bear Stearns stopped redemptions in two of its hedge funds and Merrill Lynch seized $800 million in assets from two Bear Stearns hedge funds. But even this large move was only a small affair in comparison to what was to happen in the months ahead. August 2007: The Landslide Begins .
It became apparent in August 2007 that the financial market could not solve the subprime crisis on its own and the problems spread beyond the UnitedState’s borders. The interbank market froze completely, largely due to prevailing fear of the unknown amidst banks. Northern Rock, a British bank, had to approach the Bank of England for emergency funding due to a liquidity problem. By that time, central banks and governments around the world had started coming together to prevent further financial catastrophe.
The subprime crisis’s unique issues called for both conventional and unconventional methods, which were employed by governments worldwide. In a unanimous move, central banks of several countries resorted to coordinated action to provide liquidity support to financial institutions.
The idea was to put the interbank market back on its feet. The Fed started slashing the discount rate as well as the funds rate, but bad news continued to pour in from all sides. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, Indymac bank collapsed, Bear Stearns was acquired by JP Morgan Chase , Merrill Lynch was sold to Bank of America and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were put under the control of the U.S. federal government. By October 2008, the Federal funds rate and the discount rate were reduced to 1% and 1.75%, respectively. Central banks in England, China, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland and the European Central Bank (ECB) also resorted to rate cuts to aid the world economy.
But rate cuts and liquidity support in itself were not enough to stop such a widespread financial meltdown. The U.S. government then came out with National Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which created a corpus of $700 billion to purchase distressed assets, especially mortgage-backed securities. Different governments came out with their versions of bailout packages, government guarantees and outright nationalization.
The financial crisis of 2007-08 has taught us that the confidence of the financial market, once shattered, can’t be quickly restored. In an interconnected world, a seeming liquidity crisis can very quickly turn into a solvency crisis for financial institutions, a balance of payment crisis for sovereign countries and a full-blown crisis of confidence for the entire world. But the silver lining is that, after every crisis in the past, markets have come out strong to forge new beginnings. A small selection of investors even profited from the crisis.
Financial crises come in two flavors: fraud and credit-valuation over-reach. Fraud-based financial crises may differ in particulars, but they share many traits: perverse incentives are institutionalized; the perverse incentives reward figuring out how to evade oversight via fraud, embezzlement, masking risk, etc. which are soon commoditized; regulations are gutted by insider-funded lobbying; regulators fail to do their job in hopes of getting lucrative positions in the industry they’re supposed to be regulating; reports of systemic, commoditized fraud are ignored because everyone’s getting rich, and so on.
The resolution has to :
# 1) eliminate the perverse incentives that fueled the crisis;
#2) institutionalize oversight that actually functions to limit dangerous excesses and ,
# 3) all the malinvestment and bad debt must be liquidated and the losses taken and distributed.
Rather than clean house, politicos bailed out the banks and regulators added new regulations that left the system essentially unchanged. As was easily predictable, the regulations increased the banks’ costs and created incentives to move mortgage origination into non-bank and thus less regulated entities.
The economic “end game” resulting from failed policies will be very ugly. Following the financial Armageddon and I do mean following, as by “several” months, central banks will be forced to unleash such a massive amount of new currency into the system to combat a scourge of deflation that it will stagger the mind.
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